Training for War: on the origins of serious war-gaming

    Hobby War-games I
    like simulating war, at least, as a hobby. As a child I marveled at
    Axis and Allies, and games like Risk.

    Having started my computer strategy gaming on a Sega Genesis with Westwood’s Dune 2, working on a realistic computer war-game, or
    a Real-Time Strategy Game (RTS), as it is more commonly called, became for me an item of particular interest.

    In graduate school @ USC’s Interactive Media Division I had the pleasure of working with the Westwood team at EALA on The Battle for Middle Earth II. Not
    long there after we even had a course under Professor Chris Swain which
    focused on RTS game design. It was a blast, and really provided a
    deeper insight into the process and history associated with the design
    and production of the genre. By the time I got to writing and doing
    narrative design with the
    award winning team working on Company of Heroes it was the fulfillment
    of a life long dream for me.

    Working on the war-game franchise made me ask questions. Deeper
    questions than I asked in grad school, about where my fascination began, and when this form, RTS,
    came to be. The roots of RTS, are war-games. Even if the
    setting has fantasy influences, the core combat systems of all RTS is
    that of a war-game: Multiple Player Units, Resource Management,
    Building, and Command level strategy.

    In investigating the roots of
    war-gaming in my family I found, to my surprise, that my family began
    war-gaming as a result of involvement with the military in WWII and the
    Korean War.  They played ‘war’ as students, soldiers, and officers, to
    study military strategy. Asking my retired Air-Force officer of an
    uncle, he mentioned it rising into a hobby status in the 1950s. Just
    about the time Charles Roberts was getting started designing what would prove to be a ground breaking  game system.

    Tactics IIHis 1954 game Tactics, and the follow-up Tactics II are generally credited as the first board war-game. Tactics pioneered many game mechanics which became standard in
    the board wargame industry, including cardboard counters representing
    individual military units with separate values for movement and combat;
    the odds-ratio combat results table; and variable movement costs for entering squares (later hexes) containing different types of terrain.[1] Roberts knew the game had tremendous educational value. [2] It was serious, serious war-gaming. But I knew it had to go deeper, even those table-top games had to owe what
    they are to the ideas of their predecessors. Where did it come from? My uncle was wasn’t sure.

    TacticsWar-games are most
    certainly serious in the current age, some of the best strategy game
    makers alive work for Uncle Sam creating war simulations.  While at
    first the notion may seem odd, the reality is war-games have become
    tools for military training and

    strategists.  Serious war-games are
    teaching tools, practical for professionals in the field and students
    of military strategy. With the models created by war-game systems the
    military argues it saves lives.  Any training we can have in lessening
    the taxes of war is most certainly a worthy endeavor. Game
    makers have been driving for realism in war-games for a long time, even the original Tactics box claims “The Original Realistic Land Army Wargame”. At some point hobby games became tools of learning for
    strategists. Where did this fascination come from, and where is the
    line where hobby crosses into serious war-gaming? When did military individuals start expecting the
    playing of strategic game systems, specifically war-games, to create
    narratives which can be used in real life?  As
    a narrative designer and game maker I can’t help but wonder.

    So I set out to do research, and like most things in western
    culture, one need look east to find their roots.  I started with Chess and then dug a little deeper. It lead me to Chaturaga, a game whose rules are mostly lost, but the pieces remain. This, the first serious
    war-game, came before Europe was even a dream. The
    Sanskrit word “Chaturanga”, means “four parts”, or “Army”, which for
    the ancient Indians was compromised by 4 parts.  It is a game of 6th
    century BCE Indian origins consisting of two small armies with unique units, on an 8 x 8

    Early Chaturanga peicesChaturanga
    predates Chess, but only in the little evidence had in artifact, not by
    popular record.  Most likely a Persian invention, Chaturanga beats Chess
    in record by only a number of years. Chess is an Arab invention first
    mentioned by the court poet Bana, in a poem he wrote between “625 and
    640 CE”[3]. Thanks to the trade routes of the ancient world Chess along with Chaturanga
    were both brought west to the likes of Africa, Spain, Germany, and the
    Ottoman Empire. The game evolved into chess and hung around for until 2400 years later when things got interesting.
    Christopher Weikhmann of Ulm, Germany, developed a warlike game called based on chess which had been growing in popularity in Germany thanks to the publishing of Das Schach- oder Königsspiel a book on chess in 1616. Weikhamann’s The King’s Game in 1664 expanded chess to create a game which reflected contemporary war-fare.  The King’s Game “was not

    designed merely as a pastime… it would furnish anyone who studied it properly a

    compendium of the most useful military and political principles.” [4]
    While innovative in it’s own right, for it’s array of units, it
    was a century later The Duke of Brunswick, iterated on Weikhmann’s Kings Game
    design and took war-gaming to a new level.  The game now incorporated
    artillery and armor class, two simple elements that increase the
    complexity of the war-game

    immensely and bring it closer to resembling
    modern war.

    Game of the richWhile
    these games were growing in realism, they were still little more than
    the toys of the rich, despite Weikmann’s assertion that they were much more. The players in those days were role-playing,
    imagining themselves to be great commanders making weighty decisions.
    The war-game consisted then of two parts, (1) the system of war, and
    (2) the role of commanders as taken on by each player. These parlor
    pastimes were still just games, a thing of boys and toys. Shortly
    though, games would be crossing from being as hobby to becoming a
    serious military training tool.

    The first real
    advancement beyond Chess, documented in western cultures, occurred in
    the 1800’s by the father and son team Reisswitz.  Lt von Reisswitz Jr.
    altered his fathers invention to be played on topographic table-top
    maps and in 1824 Chief of the Prussian General Staff, General von
    Muffling muttered, “This is not a game!  This is training for war!”.[5]  *Boom* that
    moment was a turning point in thought; the beginning of a new
    strategics training paradigm; the serious war-game. What was most
    impressive about this new
    development was not the game
    itself, but the attitude displayed in the subtext of General von
    Muffling’s words.  “This is not a game!  This is training for war!”
    His belief in the representation of the
    warfare through a closed abstracted game system inherently demands that
    are capable of representing, or simulating, systems in real life. In
    playing them the player builds a narrative to represent potential
    conflicts, and thier resolition, in real life. Muffling continued, “I
    recommend it to the whole army.” 
    Here too we see the beginning of the attitude that the abstract systems
    created by war-game designs could serve as learning tools.  The good
    General was playing the Reisswitz’s invention, Kriegspiel, literally ‘war-game’.

    a matter of decades war-game studies became part of regular curriculum
    at military academies worldwide. Displayed by this serious play is an
    unspoken core belief that human beings can create working models of
    life in games, and through their playing, learn how to properly
    navigate the very real game of life. As U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Anthony
    Sab said playing a war-game put it just prior to being sent off to Iraq
    in 2002 “It’s never away from
    our minds that the things we are doing here [in the war-game] are going to happen to us in real

    2. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, Naval Institute Studies, 1990
    3. Shapour Suren-Pahlav, Chess: Iranian or Indian invention , Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 200?
    4. Ed Halter, From Sun Tzu to Xbox, Thumder’s Mouth Press, 2006
    5. Author Unknown, Playing
    War: the Applicability of Commercial Conflict Simulations to
    Military Intelligence Training and Education
    DIA Joint Military Intelligence College, 1995

    Julian Borger,
    Research for Iraq in Woodland War-game,, 2002

    [This article also appeared as a “featured” blog post on Gamasutra 05/28/2009]

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